Solar or Nuclear, Which Is Better?

Xinjian Shi
March 18, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: Use of nuclear energy in a nuclear power plant. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Energy consumption is gradually transferring from the traditional energy sources such as oil, coal, natural gas, to new sources such as wind, thermal, hydrogen, etc. Among these new sources, two are very popular nowadays: solar energy and nuclear energy (see Figs. 1 and 2). They have some similarities. For example, both of them originate from atomic fission or fusion, both have been used for electricity production, and both have been widely studied in the current research areas. Then, here comes a question, for the future long-term development, which is betterr, solar or nuclear?


Regarding the long-term development, there are several issues we need to consider. The first one is the cost. This directly affects the daily life use of energy for citizens. A possible way to compare the costs of these two sources is via electricity unit cost estimates. There is a report on the levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) for solar photovoltaic which shows that the estimated LCOE for solar photovoltaic ($/MWh) is $316-$696 in the global range. [1] Another report shows the estimated LCOE for nuclear energy ($/MWh) is $25-$49, given the error range induced by the exchange rate between Dollar and Euro. [2]

Fig. 2: Use of solar energy with solar panels. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Second is sustainability. The sustainability issue is important since it affects how long we can use this kind of energy source. One drawback of solar energy is that it is dependent on the distribution of sunshine. [3] For night time, or for areas that have little sunshine all year round, or some seasonally cloudy areas where the sun illumination is blocked, the use of solar energy will be limited. That being said, both solar energy and nuclear energy are very sustainable indeed, and both of them can help to satisfy the human electricity needs for a long time into the future.

The third aspect is safety. Solar energy is a pretty safe energy source for the long term, as the sun could be pretty stable for million years without much change. [4,5] For nuclear energy, the fission waste disposal and plutonium terrorism are still problems and not well solved, but nuclear reactors have a generally good safety record. [6-8]


In summary, both solar and nuclear energy have advantages and advantages. There is also interplay between them. For example, Kumar has noted that nuclear batteries might be improved by learning from solar cells. [9] Both energy sources will very likely have a greater role to play in the future.

© Xinjian Shi. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] K. Branker, M. J. M. Pathak, and J. M. Pearce, "A Review of Solar Photovoltaic Levelized Cost of Electricity," Renew. Sustain. Energy Rev. 15, 4470 (2011).

[2] P. Heptonstall, "A Review of Electricity Unit Cost Estimates," UK Energy Research Centre, May 2007.

[3] A. Goetzberger and W. Greube, "Solar Energy Conversion with Fluorescent Collectors," Appl. Phys. 14, 123 (1977).

[4] O. Akerele, "Solar Energy and Urban Infrastructure in Nigeria," Physics 240, Stanford University, Fall 2017.

[5] T. Anderson, "Solar Energy and Oil Recovery," Physics 240, Stanford University, Fall 2017.

[6] G. de Marsily, et al., "Nuclear Waste Disposal: Can the Geologist Guarantee Isolation?" Science,197, 519 (1977).

[7] D. Albright and H. Feiveson, "Why Recycle Plutonium?" Science 235, 1555 (1987).

[8] M. B. Schaffer, "Toward a Viable Nuclear Waste Disposal Program," Energy Policy 39, 1382 (2011).

[9] S. Kumar, "Learning from Solar Cells - Improving Nuclear Batteries," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2012.